Our city’s name is in itself a reference to the body of water that it was founded upon - Dubh Linn. These rivers helped to shape the cities that grew around them. For much of history, the development of these cities has been intrinsically linked to their relationship with water. Acting as a main artery, the coursing rivers acted as sources of nutrition, hydration, sanitation, paths for trade, and most intriguing for us, as public spaces.
Looking at a plan of Dublin, we can see how the city grew from the river. James Butler, 1st Duke of Ormond, as Viceroy of Ireland during the seventeenth century, helped to define the city's relationship with the Liffey by developing the quays, the longest of which still holds his namesake; Ormond Quay. Inspired by his travels through France and the opulent grandeur of Paris, he declared that buildings should now face the river – as they do on the Seine – whereas before they turned their backs on it. However, despite this early urban intervention, it is these quays – these public spaces – that this author believes to be hardly working.
The Liffey is the spine that holds the capital city. Along this artery, the quays have always acted as a natural route from east to west. However, making your way along the quays, whether walking, cycling, or driving, you feel as though you’re always fighting for space; for your right to the road. The car takes priority along the quays, dominating the space, and even acting as another barrier and hazard to pedestrians and cyclists. When walking on the quays, at the river's edge, you feel trapped; you’re given a narrow path and are surrounded both by the natural barrier of the water and the man-made danger of traffic, oftentimes impeded by bus stops, public bins or the – although beautiful – mature trees planted on the footpath; another thing fighting for its own space. The few cafes and eateries that are along the quays – businesses that by nature are outward facing – have little or no room to present themselves, further adding to the transitory nature of the street.
Running west-east, the Liffey can be described as an avenue made of water. Framed on either side by its river-facing buildings, it still maintains its Georgian character. A style that is elegant but also austere in its outward restraint. These many facades are built right up to the property boundary line, making an already narrow footpath seem smaller. They are often void of any relief  which can make them seem to mesh together to create an impression of a singular wall, closing you in. There are, however, some points of respite to these issues; the meshed singular wall is broken up at times by certain inlets like at Liffey Street or on Wood Quay by the Civic Offices. The Liffey boardwalk, by McGarry Ní Éanaigh Architects and opened in 2000, was an ambitious and innovative project designed to address the chaos of the quays, but, unfortunately, it is generally avoided due to anti-social behaviour.
In direct comparison to Dublin, Timișoara is another city that was founded on a river – this time, the Timiș River in Transylvania. A smaller city, comparable in population to Belfast, its relationship to its river through its waterfronts takes a different approach. The city in its modern form developed from a star-shaped fortified settlement which sat on a raised bank of the river amid marshlands. Over time, as the city grew beyond the capabilities of its walls, it began through hydrographical projects to drain the marshlands and create a new waterway in place of the river, the Bega Canal.
When strolling along the waterside it’s easy to forget that the landscape you’re walking through is highly engineered; tree-filled parklands populate the sloping embankments either side of the canal. The water level sits lower than the city level, further creating a sense of separation from the busy city and cars that run along the roads above the embankments. Large wide steps leading down to the river invite you to sit by the water’s edge. There are restaurants and bars with terraces interspersed along the embankments. Considered civic structures with bike paths, benches, and well-designed lighting at night allow it to take on another life in the evening – there is even a nightclub built into the underside of a bridge. Boat tours lazily cruise up and down the water adding to the sense of relaxation. To say that this space is working hard seems almost ironic because the atmosphere is so natural and effortless, as though it’s not working at all.
I don’t mean to suggest that the solution for Dublin’s quays is the Bega waterway – the two are almost the antithesis of each other. Through varying geography and historical development, the two offer very different atmospheres. However, I think that the city’s quays have enormous potential, and there is much that can be done to improve them. Generosity in pedestrianised areas for new developments can attract more businesses, leading to more footfall and in turn help to dissuade any antisocial activity. Further planting of broadleaves would complement the existing mature trees. A good public space is one that can accommodate a variety of activities and functions – the quays in Dublin are still playing catch up.
1. The term relief is from the Latin verb relevo, to raise. To create a sculpture in relief is to give the impression that the sculpted material has been raised above the background plane.
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